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Grassley will fight on
When the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees took questions from reporters Tuesday, they defended what critics said was a revision that guts payment limit reforms.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) said the farm bill keeps the payment cap of $125,000 per spouse for commodity program payments, but it allows more flexibility on how payments fall under that limit.
And, she said, the USDA will have more power to reform the definition of what it means to be actively engaged in farming.
"We gave them the authority they have not had before," she said.
Added House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), "The language has real teeth, is the bottom line.
"No one got their way on this. This is a consensus," Lucas said.
Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) isn't buying it.
In an exclusive interview with Agriculture.com Tuesday, Grassley said, "By the time you consider all the four or five caveats and restrictions about the definition of a farmer, they'll end up right where they are now."
Grassley said that the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that the reforms that he championed in the Senate's farm bill would have saved $387 million over 10 years by closing a loophole that currently allows nonfarming investors to claim they're "actively engaged" in agriculture and collect payments.
Grassley knows that the farm bill conference committee that produced a final bill late Monday are circumventing the will of majorities in both chambers. Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) offered an amendment to the House Farm bill that is almost identical to the reforms Grassley advanced in the Senate version. Fortenberry's amendment passed by a vote of 230 to 194.
When asked Tuesday if the payment-limit issue jeopardizes final passage in the House Wednesday, Grassley replied, "Probably not."
Grassley said he hasn't yet decided whether he'll vote for the final bill in the Senate. "I'm going to read the 900-page bill and decide how to vote," he said.
Grassley was clearly disappointed.
"It shouldn't even have been conferenced," said Grassley, who is a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee but who was not picked to be on the conference committee that wrote the final bill.
"If I were a conferee, I'd be ashamed to ignore the will of the majority of two houses," he said.
Grassley said "there's nothing I can do except raise Cain between now and the time it passes the Senate."
When asked if he would fight for reforms in another farm bill, Grassley said, "I've got to get reelected to do it again." Grassley, who at 80 remains an avid jogger, will be up for reelection in 2016.
Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for American Farm Bureau Federation, said Grassley was very effective in fighting for payment limits.
"Chuck Grassley did an incredible job of lobbying that issue," she told Agriculture.com
And, she said, Grassley will have a chance to work on strengthening payment limits during the annual appropriations process in Congress.
"I think he feels very strongly about it," she said. "He's not going to drop the ball.